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Friday, May 19, 2017

Keep your Eye on the Ball to the Paddle - the Science

Keep your eye on the ball - even if you can't see it...

We will continue our discussion about keeping your eye on the ball by looking at what science says about the concept. You may or may not be surprised depending on your own experience with the technique.

The source for the materials discussed below is Catching Flies And Hitting Fastballs Have A Lot In Common and Baseball Brains - Hitting Into The World Series, both from 80 Percent Mental Consulting. 

Most studies on the concept of keeping your eye on the ball have involved baseball and that is topic of these articles.

A common coach's tip to hitters is to "keep your eye on the ball" or "watch the ball hit the bat". As Stadler points out, doing both of these things is nearly impossible due to the concept known as "angular velocity". Imagine you are standing on the side of freeway with cars coming towards you. Off in the distance, you are able to watch the cars approaching your position with relative ease, as they seem to be moving at a slower speed. As the cars come closer and pass about a 45 degree angle and then zoom past your position, they seem to "speed up" and you have to turn your eyes/head quickly to watch them. While the car is going at a constant speed, its angular velocity increases making it difficult to track.
Research reported by Stadler shows that hitters cannot watch the entire flight of the ball, so they employ two tactics.
First, they might follow the path of the ball for 70-80% of its flight, but then their eyes can't keep up and they estimate or extrapolate the remaining path and make a guess as to where they need to swing to have the bat meet the ball. In this case, they don't actually "see" the bat hit the ball. Second, they might follow the initial flight of the ball, estimate its path, then shift their eyes to the anticipated point where the ball crosses the plate to, hopefully, see their bat hit the ball. 
The research cited above relates to adult baseball, meaning pitches in the 80-100 mile per hour range. That far exceeds the speed of pickleballs so does this apply to our sport? Apparently it does.
Most baseball coaches and a few parents have learned the futility of instructing a young batter to “keep their eye on the ball.” Studies have shown that it is very difficult, if not impossible, for human eyes to track the trajectory of the pitch all the way across the plate. Even at the slower speeds of Little League pitchers, the shorter distance to the plate forces batters to pick-up early cues of the ball’s flight and speed, then make predictions of where and when it will cross the plate.  With less than a half second to to make the swing/no-swing decision, if the muscle activity isn’t triggered early in the pitch, the bat just won’t get around in time.
This time lag between incoming visual stimuli, motion planning in the brain and activation of the muscles, known as sensorimotor delay, is common throughout sports.  Think about a goalkeeper moving to stop a hockey puck or soccer ball; a tennis player returning a blistering serve; or a receiver adjusting to the flight of a football.  Their eyes tell them the speed and path of the object they need to intercept, then their brain instructs the body to move in the predicted path to arrive just in time.
In short, only balls moving at slower speeds over longer distances can be followed continuously by a player's eye to the paddle. Hard-hit balls over short distances cannot be followed.

Science proves it.

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